BurningRiverBaseball’s 2019 Top Five Cleveland Indians Prospects

Nolan Jones11

We wrap up the 2019 Cleveland Indians prospect rankings with the best five in the entire system. To qualify for the list, players must be in the Indians minor league system heading into the 2020 season and have zero games of Major League experience. For reference, the chart below shows those players ranked from one to five since our official rankings began in 2015:

2018 2017 2016 2015
Triston McKenzie Triston McKenzie Triston McKenzie Bradley Zimmer
Nolan Jones Bobby Bradley Bradley Zimmer Clint Frazier
Tyler Freeman Shane Bieber Francisco Mejia Brady Aiken
Eli Morgan Nolan Jones Yandy Diaz Bobby Bradley
Bobby Bradley Yu-Cheng Chang Bobby Bradley Tyler Naquin

Now, let’s get into the best of the best in 2019.

BurningRiverBaseball's 2019 Top Five Cleveland Indians Prospects
Akron RubberDuck Outfielder Daniel Johnson leaping catch vs Harrisburg Senators 22 May 19 – Russell J Bennett – BurningRiverBaseball
5. Daniel Johnson – CF – Age: 24 – Unranked in 2018
Trade from WAS (Yan Gomes)
AAA Columbus

Generally, once you get into the top 10 prospects, they are extremely high ceiling players, but Johnson being here has more to do with his extremely high floor. He probably should have made his big league debut in 2020 and will unquestionably at least be a good defensive bench option in the Majors.

Johnson was the biggest name in the Gomes deal last off-season and he had a bit of a rough start in Akron this year before a May promotion lead to a fantastic end to the season. He had a hit in each of his first eight AAA games, slugging .714 over that span, finishing with a career best .507 SLG overall and .534 in Columbus alone. Breaking that down, he hit 34 doubles, 7 triples and 19 home runs in 134 games.

While the power was a surprise and could have been ball related as AAA players around the league saw a similar surge, his defense has always been there. He started the season playing all three positions, but it didn’t take long for Andrew Calica to retire and the team to realize Johnson was superior to Ka’ai Tom, who is a fine defender in his own right. From April 22nd until his promotion on May 25th, he was the starting center fielder for Akron, but once he reached Columbus, he was largely used in right.

In AAA, he had to compete with Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen in addition to the also promoted Tom and he was put on a side burner. This shouldn’t be a long term situation, however, as Johnson could very well beat Allen out for fourth outfielder in 2020, although this would put him back in right most of the time with Oscar Mercado starting.

BurningRiverBaseball's 2019 Top Five Cleveland Indians Prospects
Valera stands at the plate during 2019 extended spring training. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
4. George Valera – CF – Age: 18 – 2018 Rank: #15
2017 International Free Agent
A Lake County

After missing almost all of 2018 with a broken hamate bone, Valera spent extended spring in Arizona to get back up to speed before jumping straight to Mahoning Valley. He started off incredibly hot there, batting .280/.394/.505 over his first 31 games, but this didn’t last and he hit .123/.253/.274 over his final 21 games between short season and Lake County.

It is nice to finally have some actual numbers to look at after ranking Valera #23 in 2017 and #15 last year based on scouting reports and my observations of him during practices and exhibitions, but this is still a very small sample size.

What we can say now is that he has a very quick bat and real power, but issues swinging and missing. In the field, he is fast and has a good arm, but doesn’t have the greatest instincts and will likely end up a corner outfielder, no matter how hard the Indians try to shove him in center. In fact, he’s already trending this way, playing all five of his games with the Captains in the corner after making 25 of his first 35 starts in center. Playing in right still allows the Indians to make the most of his arm and athletic ability while having someone with a better first best and true speed to play center.

Valera will likely be back in Lake County next year, but having the opportunity to start a full season in April could allow him to jump to Lynchburg mid-season if he can put up numbers that match his innate ability.

BurningRiverBaseball's 2019 Top Five Cleveland Indians Prospects
Hankins makes a start for the Indians during 2019 extended spring training against the Reds. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
3. Ethan Hankins – RHSP – Age: 19 – 2018 Rank: #9
Drafted 2018, Round 1
A Lake County

Hankins made just two starts in his rookie season, but managed to jump multiple levels this year after starting out in extended spring training. When I saw him there, his velocity was strong and he had great swing and miss stuff, but had some issues with control. Those issues appear to have followed him throughout the year as he walked 4.2 per nine in Mahoning Valley, then 5.1 per nine across his five Lake County starts.

At the same time, his strike out rate of 10.7 was elite and he did a really good job limiting contact in short season ball, leading to a 1.40 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Since he didn’t allow many hits or home runs (one in 38.2 IP), he essentially was in total control of the game and his poor performances then were entirely his own fault. In the five starts that he allowed only one walk in Mahoning Valley (he never went walkless), he allowed one total earned run over 22.2 innings. In his other four appearances, he walked 13 over 16 innings and allowed five earned runs.

Once he was promoted to Lake County, the more advanced hitters were able to make more consistent contact and the walks really came back to bite him. He allowed at least one earned run in each appearance and finished with a 4.64 ERA.

While that all may be considered somewhat negative, the fact is that he was playing at three years below the age of your average A baller and still struck out 11.8 per nine. It would probably suit him best to stay in Lake County to start 2020, but his efforts this season shouldn’t take anything from his ceiling.

2. Nolan Jones (pictured at top) – 3B – Age: 21 – 2018  Rank: #2
Drafted 2016, Round 2
AA Akron

It isn’t the sexiest stat, but Jones lead all of MiLB this year with 96 walks and is ninth in total walks since he started playing in 2016. His .409 OBP is also second among Indians MiLBers over the same time frame (min. 500 PA). While he also has good line drive power, this aspect of his game is what really sets him apart from his contemporaries. In fact, it is his ability to wait out an at bat for the perfect pitch that allows him to be so successful on those makes contact with.

Unfortunately, the first draw back for Jones is that he doesn’t make contact with enough. He struck out 148 times in 2019, nearly 28% of his plate appearances. While this doesn’t quite compare to Quentin Holmes or Will Benson, it is a considerable amount for a player the Indians could consider for their starting line-up in 2020.

Obviously, a prospect doesn’t need to be perfect to get a shot at the big leagues, but Jones has one more fatal flaw, his defense. He played a decent short stop over a limited time in the AZL in 2016, so I was surprised when I heard reports from Mahoning Valley the following year that he had issues with the most routine plays and he finished with a .835 fielding percent. Things never improved much and he now has a career .899 fielding percent in over 2,500 innings at third. While he played just 13 games in the Arizona Fall League this year, he still managed three errors and had a couple other plays I personally saw that I thought could have been called errors.

While a team can ignore the strike outs due to the extremely high OBP and decent power, there is no way a team could tolerate such poor play at the hot corner. Over the last 20 years, among players with at least 3,000 innings at third, the worst fielding percent was Travis Fryman at .964 and he at least had the bonus of being a veteran former short stop at the time. Looking at single seasons, only two qualifying players in the past 20 years have had a fielding percent as bad as Jones and both were quickly moved to other positions (Mark Reynolds to DH, Ryan Braun to OF). In fact, this whole page of players looks like a who’s who of guys who switched positions (mostly to first or DH) or retired.

With that in mind in addition to his offensive talent, I believe that Jones may need one more season in the minors to convert to either first base or corner outfield. It’s incredible that the Indians haven’t tried this yet, especially given their weak MLB outfield outlook, but they will have to soon or pray every time someone hits a ground ball to third (for comparison, the two worst qualified Indians 3B FLD% in the last 20 years were Casey Blake in 2004 and Lonnie Chisenhall in 2014, both players who then successfully moved to right. They were both considerably better at third than Jones).

BurningRiverBaseball's 2019 Top Five Cleveland Indians Prospects
Freeman runs back to catch a fly ball during 2019 MiLB spring training practice. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
1. Tyler Freeman – SS – Age: 20 – 2018 Rank: #3
Drafted 2017, Round 2
A+ Lynchburg

If you are disappointed that the Indians top five prospects list started off with four who have serious flaws, allow me to present you with the perfect prospect. Before getting into the positives, let’s avoid all the potential negatives. Freeman is extremely young, has never been on the injured list, has been promoted quickly without ever failing and doesn’t make you cringe every time he fields a grounder.

Building on that, he is an absolute joy to watch play. The photo above comes from a practice where he was giving every play 100%, something many players don’t even do during actual games. In official games, he has shown both excellent range and good proficiency at turning attempts into outs (.962 FLD at SS, .974 at 2B). The one knock on his defense is an arm that isn’t as strong as other short stops, possibly making him ultimately a better fit at second.

Freeman’s range is both a function of quick reaction time and great speed and both help him on the bases as well. He’s stolen 38 bases successfully in 47 attempts with his best numbers coming at his highest level as he stole eight of nine in 62 games in Lynchburg. While not quite Jonesian due to a lack of walk, his .379 career OBP is impressive and means that pitchers are constantly on their toes as Freeman is regularly on first.

BurningRiverBaseball's 2019 Top Five Cleveland Indians Prospects

While he lacks power to this point, the chart above perfectly visualizes his all fields approach at the plate and with his line drive stroke, he is often able to turn singles into doubles. In addition, he has always been one of the youngest in his level and I expect more power to show as he begins to play against those his own age. Of course, that might not happen until he reaches the big leagues as he stands to start 2020 in AA Akron at just 21 years old.

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